Mixed results for Rudolph, Minkah in Steelers loss

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Mason Rudolph sought out defensive tackle Cameron Heyward after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 24-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

"The game is on us," the quarterback told him. "We had so many opportunities with turnovers in the first half and the momentum swing with the defense. We've got to put more points on the board for you guys."

On an afternoon where the defense forced five turnovers, the offense's failure to capitalize on the takeaways resulted in the Steelers' third consecutive loss. Meanwhile, the 49ers forced two turnovers and scored a touchdown off each.

"We turned the ball over twice," coach Mike Tomlin said. "They scored two touchdowns in the second half, and really that's the difference in the game. In the first half, we were getting turnovers and we were settling for field goals. That's the storyline of the game."

The loss also marked the first start for two important members of the franchise going forward this season: Rudolph and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Their afternoons were mixed bags, but each finished the Steelers' 24-20 loss with a handful of positive signs.

Rudolph struggled in the first half, completing eight of 15 attempts for only 40 yards, and he opened the third quarter with an interception. Early on, he looked out of sync with his young receivers, including rookie Diontae Johnson, who made his first start. But Rudolph finished strong, going 14-for-27 for 174 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

While conservative play calling kept Rudolph from getting much of anything going in his first half as the Steelers' starter, Fitzpatrick immediately showed why the Steelers (0-3) traded away their first-round pick for the first time since 1967.

Primarily playing free safety, Fitzpatrick contributed to the Steelers' victory in the turnover margin -- a strong predictor of the final score most of the time -- with a first-half interception and forced fumble.

"My coaches prepared me well, and my teammates helped me out a whole lot," he said. "We went out there, and they allowed me to just play my game of football. They kept it simple, and we just went out and played."

Late in the first quarter, the former Miami Dolphin ran in to help cornerback Joe Haden, who was covering running back Matt Breida. Haden tipped Jimmy Garappolo's pass, forcing it to go off Breida's hands, and Fitzpatrick was there to collect the interception. He ran it back 14 yards, giving the new Steelers' quarterback prime field position to start the drive. But instead of adding six to the board, the Steelers only managed a field goal.

Fitzpatrick ended the 49ers' next drive, too, this time, tackling running back Raheem Mostert low to jar the ball loose. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush recovered it, diving to snap it up for the third takeaway of the game. That time, the offense couldn't add any points to the board.

"We just didn't complement the defense very well all day," offensive lineman David DeCastro said. "Even when we started to get better as the game wore on, toward the second half, we just didn't finish."

With Fitzpatrick's help, the Steelers, for the second time in two seasons, racked up four takeaways in a half. Last year, they hit that mark against the Buccaneers, but prior to that, they hadn't forced four turnovers in a half since 2010.

But after a first-half performance that gave the Steelers a 6-3 lead at the break, Fitzpatrick and the defense couldn't keep pace in the second half as they stayed on the field for 73 plays. They allowed an eight-play, 38-yard scoring drive off Rudolph's third-quarter interception and a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive to close out the quarter.

"Good defenses get the hell off the field," Heyward said. "We didn't in the second half."

The Steelers offense, dormant for so much of the game, came alive in the second half thanks to a couple of deep passes by Rudolph and a brief burst in the run game.

Rudolph hit wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown to cap a three-play, 82-yard drive late in the third quarter.

The Steelers then opened the fourth quarter with a 10-yard run by James Conner, followed by a deep pass attempt to James Washington that drew a defensive pass interference flag and set up for Rudolph's 39-yard touchdown to Johnson -- the rookie's first of his NFL career.

"It was a matter of finding the right time to take the top off the defense," Rudolph said. "Maybe I have to be more aggressive. We'll watch the tape and figure that out."

But even with Fitzpatrick's immediate contributions and Rudolph's second-half touchdown passes, the Steelers winless streak continued as a result of Conner's fumble and the 49ers' subsequent fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

The Steelers now look to a Monday night matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals to avoid their first 0-4 start since the 2013 season, a year where they would up at 8-8 and missed the postseason.